Photo by Warren Brant:
The summer before going into high school my mother told me about a new experimental school called St Paul Open School. It was the first publically funded school modeled after the Freedom Schools that sprang up during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
I jumped at the chance to enroll; I already had a Billy Jack hat. It was a wide brimmed black felt hat with an Indian headband. Billy Jack was the main character of a movie by the same name released my summer between junior high school and senior high school. Billy was a half-blood Indian and Green Beret Vietnam War Vet, who was the defender of the same kind of Hippie Free School that my mom had just enrolled me into for the fall. Thank god I had the right hat.
The first day of school the building was not quite ready. Most of the converted warehouse was left wide open with minimal walls separating the cavernous space. The main job was to paint the entire interior in the psychedelic colors of the time.
During the first week we assembled in a downtown St Paul community college auditorium. We were 500 guinea pigs, ages Kindergarten through 12th grade, excited to be a part of a brave new social experiment. What I remember clearly is Vice Principle, David Legg walking to the podium with his signature limp. David was from England. All of the teachers were on a first name bases even the Principle and Vice Principle.
With his thick British accent David announced, “At this school there are no grade levels.”
We cheered in one voice realizing that the artificial age barriers separating us had just evaporated.
David paused for dramatic effect before shouting, “At this school there are no grades.”
All the children erupted with unrestrained joy for being unshackled from having to bring a report card home to their parents ever again.
With master showmanship David waited for the perfect moment before shouting above the mayhem, “At this school there are no rules!”
What was heard next was the sound of 500 young minds exploding from the realization that for the first time in their lives they were truly free.
After the chaos of the first morning I tracked down my Billy Jack hat from under a kindergartner’s chair. For the rest of the week we performed community service; waiting for our building’s paint to dry.
The Monday morning of the second week, our building was finally ready for school. Imagine 500 children entering at a run, and not stop running all day. At the end of the day the teachers complained of backaches from teaching standing up. They would snatch a slow moving child from the herd and hunch over a math or science book for a few minutes, until the call of freedom distracted the child back into the intoxicating chaos of unbridled play.
I met my best friend that day. Ted Pirsig, a lanky, longhaired boy who pulled me aside in the gym to play handball. We were bouncing a tennis ball against the brightly colored radiator covers that ran the length of the room.
Ted missed my return volley. After retrieving the ball he turned to me and said, “Normally it would be your turn to serve, but because there are no rules at St Paul Open School that rule only applies on Tuesday.”
We went on to have a lovely afternoon making up our own rules wherever we wandered. That day Ted’s father Robert Pirsig was home writing a book called, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the book that changed my generation.
Buddhism is the only path that has ever made sense to me. I think you can be Christian Buddhist. I think you can be a Jewish Buddhist. I think you can be an Islamic Buddhist, I even think you can be a Lutheran Buddhist.
I remember having to go meet my Lutheran Minister in his office when I began taking Hatha Yoga at my hippie high school. My mom was concerned about my soul. I told my pastor that it was just a lot of stretching. Today my mom’s church offers Yoga Class on Tuesday afternoons.
We divide up our world by putting people in boxes. If their box is on the right side of your opinions then maybe they’ll open up your box and really learn
what gifts you have to offer. If your opinion is on the wrong side of their opinions then that box will remain closed and who you are will be a mystery.
Attending a school with no rules enabled me to slip through the system without being indoctrinated. This freedom allowed me to live a life of painting outside the lines. Thanks to St Paul Open School I think I now rebel against the status quo every time I walk out my front door.
I have inherited the sense of humor of my father and the moral compass of my mother to navigate through a world of cognitive dissonance. Where there is laughter there is either pain being inflicted or healed. Like Buddha I try to lean towards the good. Pain is the great warning that something is wrong in the world. We don’t touch fire because we know that it burns. I always thought the clown’s spirit was born on the day that the second caveman was burnt by fire.
Laughter has become the coin of my trade. At an early age I learned to slip between the cracks of society’s expectations into a world were I had the freedom to walk into a room upside down if I chose to that day.
Ted Pirsig and I both learned to ride the unicycle at St Paul Open School. The school lockers were the perfect distance apart to aid us in balancing precariously on one wheel while riding down our school’s hallways.
However, I’m the one who caught the performing bug. I was still living at home when I told my mom that I was going to become a professional clown. She wasn’t quite sure about my career chose. Her friends scolded her that she was the one who raised me to be an independent thinker.
I remember nearly giving her a heart attack the day she caught me juggling her carving knives in the kitchen. Red faced she declared, “Someday I’m going to write a book called, ‘The Mother of a Clown!”
Photo by Linda Brant-Malm: